Knight Fall

An amusing popcorn romp through the Middle Ages gets sappy and slushy.

Who doesn't like a happy fun movie? Happy fun movies are what make America great! Sadly, most attempts at happy fun movieness produce only boring discouraging films which make the average film critic want to drink even more of the vile liquors that support them in their unrewarding job.

Not so with A Knight's Tale. It's an amusing romp through the late middle ages, with the occasional witty line and lots and lots of scenes that include no computer-enhanced demolition. In fact, in the entire course of A Knight's Tale, nothing explodes ... except the happy fun times!

Of course, all good things must pass, and the happy fun times of A Knight's Tale peter out about two thirds of the way through, when it becomes a bit maudlin and sappy and sentimental, and, of course, somewhat slushy and schmaltzy. A little mawkish, too. Maybe slightly bathetic, even.

Still, it starts well and, while never quite reaching the heights of a Shakespearean romance or a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope comedy, it still manages to pay back the majority of the admission price.

It begins, as all great teen-sex, rock-and-roll comedies do, in the 14th century. A knight has just passed away and his faithful squires are left with no food. Resourcefully, the most handsome among them decides to don the knight's armor and become the hero of the movie.

This works out swimmingly, as the most handsome among them is played by Heath Ledger, who, coincidentally, is very handsome. The squires and their fake knight then go around entering jousting tournaments in order to win enough money to avoid starvation and plague and all those other things that the middle ages had in abundance. Like rats and war and genocide.

Along the way, they encounter a naked man who promises to help them in their little scam by producing fake documents of nobility, needed for entering the fun and deadly tournaments. The man, oddly, is named Geoffrey Chaucer, and he seems to be something of a poet. After clothing him with what the Medievals liked to call "raiments," or maybe just "clothes," the fake knight, now calling himself Sir Ulrich Von Lichtenstein, because that sounded a lot classier than "William the Poor Thatcher's Handsome But Penniless Son," heads off to the tournaments. He wins every time.

Of course, this will not do, as one of the basic formulas of any movie is that there has to be some conflict, and if the hero is incapable of being defeated, well, that gets in the way of all the drama and stuff. Thus, a really mean knight named Count Adhemar, who is so evil that he's actually French, turns up to challenge Sir Ulrich (a.k.a. William the Poor Thatcher's Handsome But Penniless Son) for the hand of the beautiful young Lady Jocelyn. Also, to beat the snot out of him in the jousting tournament.

With the basic conflict set up there's lots of love and misunderstanding and jousting and such to fill out the remaining hour of the film. There's also dancing and rock music, one of which was very popular in the middle ages.

The dancing and the jousting are all delightfully entertaining, the kind of eye candy that, for my money, works a lot better than enormous fireballs and showers of debris. Of course, it's a lot easier just to make something explode than it is to train a bunch of people to ride around on horses or to dance in perfect formation, so I imagine that ultimately we'll see less and less of this sort of thing and more and more stuff involving fire and loud noises. So, you know, get it while you can.

On the downside, the best actors in A Knight's Tale are in the secondary roles. Paul Bettany, who plays Chaucer, is a real charmer, and Mark Addy, who plays one of the squires, is pretty much wasted here as he's given no comedic lines. I guess that since he's done hard, gritty drama in the role of Fred Flintstone in last year's Viva Rock Vegas he no longer feels the need to be amusing.

Laura Fraser, who was smashing as Lavinia in 1999's underrated Titus is given a small role as a blacksmith, and she also doesn't have much material. Finally, Rufus Sewell, who's largely underutilized in Hollywood (although he did have the lead in 1998's Dark City) plays the villain, a role that his rather dark and raw-boned good looks seem to have condemned him to.

Still, these are small quibbles. A Knight's Tale is competently shot, the sets and the lead actors are equally pretty, there's a few good jokes and the pacing is right on the money until the film decides to get serious. As far as the current crop of popcorn movies go, A Knight's Tale is not a bad pick, and is certainly a lot better than anything featuring mummies.